“History is the trade secret of science fiction” — that quote’s attributed to me, but I think I got it from Asimov.
–Ken MacLeod, “Working the Wet End” interview, The Human Front Plus…, 2013, PM Press
For the past several weeks I’ve listened several times to the cast recording of the new Broadway musical Hamilton, and I’m only one of many; my circles of fandom have fallen in love with it and it’s the most-requested and most-offered fandom in this year’s Yuletide fanfic exchange. I’m quickly summing up some thoughts not just on what makes Hamilton good, but what makes it so astonishingly appealing to my circle of feminist friends who also adore reading speculative fiction, and who don’t generally find their tastes running to Broadway musicals.
The songs are super great. The clever lyrics and catchy music inspire us to baroque homage. For those of us who are not used to listening to hip-hop (Exhibit A: me), take note of the novelty factor as well.
Performances: also great. An amazing and versatile set of pipes on these folks! I am used to listening to pop and rock and a bit of folk, and stage singers have more impressive voices. And again, I’m not used to listening to hip-hop, so the virtuosity needed to rap those lyrics stuns me.
Aural affordances. You can listen to Hamilton (or, for that matter, Welcome to Night Vale and Wolf 359) on the go and while doing tedious chores, which is not the case with a lot of visual media. For those of us who read a lot faster than we can listen, or are otherwise just not used to audiobooks, the affordance of narrative audio strikes us as new. And there are emotions you can hit a lot easier with the human voice than with text.
That free first listen. A ton of people listened to the cast album when NPR First Listen let you stream it, free, in its entirety, for several days (until it was available for purchase). How often do you get to try the entirety of an expensive multi-hour narrative experience, for free, without installing some app or registering for something? I think this move caught a bunch of people who otherwise rarely would have tried listening, and got them to spread the word.
Fannishness and intertextuality. Creator Lin-Manuel Miranda must be a nerd, we sense: “…it’s hitting the same ‘fannish like us!’ button as Night Vale: widely referential while doing something that feels fresh and unlikely.” The RapGenius lyric annotation project has demonstrated and fed the fannish urges to understand the lyrics in an intratextual and intertextual way.*
Genre similarity. Scifi is about understanding the Other, and that includes people from other eras; “the past is another country,” right? Hamilton is a fantasy of political agency and of changing the world, just like much science fiction. And if you compare the worldbuilding in Hamilton to the worldbuilding in speculative fiction, Hamilton feels a little info-dumpy, but (a) the introductory song is so pretty that most of us don’t mind, and (b) it feels plausible that these essayists would sometimes verge on over-explaining facts everyone knows.
We miss adventures about government. Hamilton, like The West Wing, Parks and Recreation, and Star Trek, is about the thrilling, epic adventure of using one’s brain and one’s passion for public service to implement democracy and advance the project of civilization (thanks to Jonathan Sterne for the heart of that comparison: “stories about the ambitions of the professional-managerial class”. And two of those shows are gone, and one (Star Trek) has been gone for a while. There’s a hole in our heart where those shows belong, and Hamilton fills it (as this modern-setting fic demonstrates admirably). I previously ruminated on In The Loop from a related angle — systems analysis of organizational behavior and the power of institutions, plus the plot/banter firehose — but it completely lacks the wish-fulfillment element.
Patriotism (for those of us who do that). For those of us who love those Allen Ginsberg lines in “America”, “I’d better get right down to the job. / …. / America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” Or that whole Langston Hughes poem, “Let America Be America Again” — that complicated love of the meritocratic dream, where we re-dedicate ourselves to transmuting it into reality. Hamilton engages in that kind of patriotism.
Social justice stuff. You know, the racebending, the pro-immigrant stance, the deliberate references to Ferguson and to #BlackLivesMatter, the fact that our author is of Puerto Rican descent and not just another white guy, all that stuff.
Queer almost-representation. No one in the play is explicitly in a romantic or sexual relationship with someone of the same gender. But there’s a tiny bit of canon where Alexander Hamilton can be read as stating his attraction to John Laurens, and there’s historical evidence for that particular pairing. And Miranda enjoys and encourages fanart about queer subtext.
Sophistication AND sobbing. Hamilton has irony and top-flight wordplay and so many intellectual curlicues you could listen a dozen times and still pick up new nuances. And it’s got big unapologetic emotional spectacle that yanks at the heartstrings and reliably makes listeners cry. You don’t often see both those qualities in the same package; this is one of the things people loved about Rent.
Gateway drug to RPF. When you read fiction about people who really actually existed, you are reading RPF (Real Person Fanfic), a type of transformative work. I have, in the past, felt a not-terribly-well-articulated squick around RPF that made me reluctant to read or write it. But Hamilton sidesteps that squick — these people are long dead, most of them were public figures already, it does not invent new ‘ships beyond those in the historical record — and as such allows the listener to enjoy the peculiar pleasures of RPF. You can read nonfiction about these people to enrich your literary experience. I have walked the same streets they did, worked on Lafayette Street and taken a class in Hamilton Hall. You can trace the ripples of their actions, across time and nations. If you live in the United States then you have probably spent money with Washington’s or Hamilton’s face on it. As immersive as any fiction is, it can never be as entirely immersive as reality, and that’s where RPF wins — an endless supply of new canon that has unbeatable verismilitude.
Please share your hypotheses in comments, or tell me where I’m wrong!
* (I’m feeling a perhaps unwonted wariness of linking to RapGenius since a founder publicly acted so churlishly in the past.)